Opinion: Let’s take inspiration from women executives who call it quits to climb the corporate ladder

Joanna Rotenberg, the Group Head of BMO Wealth Management at BMO Financial Group, at her home In Creemore, Ont., on June 26, 2020.Cole Burston/COLE BURSTON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Female executives are showing Bay Street who’s boss.

Laura Dottori-Attanasio, head of personal and business banking at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, is the latest female executive to ascend to the CEO role – by quitting her current job.

Although she spent nearly a decade being groomed for the top job at CIBC, it appears the brass ring remained out of her reach. But instead of moping about her stunted succession at the bank, Ms. Dottori-Attanasio got a better offer.

She’ll become Element Fleet Management Corp.’s CEO in May. Women across corporate Canada, who are fed up with being passed over for promotions, should be inspired by her refusal to settle for anything less than a C-suite job.

Ms. Dottori-Attanasio is in good company. Other Bay Street women have also shown such gumption in recent years.

Last year, Deborah Orida left her job as a senior managing director and chief sustainability officer at Canada Pension Plan Investment Board to become CEO of the Public Sector Pension Investment Board.

Joanna Rotenberg left her job as head of Bank of Montreal’s wealth management division in 2021 to join the U.S. executive team at Fidelity Investments as president of its multitrillion-dollar personal investing division.

Rania Llewellyn resigned from her role as executive vice-president in charge of the Bank of Nova Scotia’s global business payments to become CEO of Laurentian Bank of Canada in 2020. Born in Kuwait to an Egyptian father and Jordanian mother, Ms. Llewellyn’s get-up-and-go enabled her to smash a glass ceiling for women of colour in banking.

And south of the border, Thasunda Brown Duckett, who did the same for Black women, got tired of waiting for her turn at the helm of America’s largest bank.

Jamie Dimon’s refusal to relinquish the reins at JPMorgan Chase & Co. (he’s been CEO for 17 years and counting) is legendary. With the writing on the wall, Ms. Duckett resigned as head of Chase’s consumer banking division in 2021 to become CEO of retirement services and investment firm TIAA.

Interestingly, Mr. Dimon left Citigroup in the late 1990s after falling out with his mentor, Sanford Weill, who refused to vacate the top job to make way for him.

“The problem was in 1999 he wanted to be CEO and I didn’t want to retire,” Mr. Weill later told The New York Times. “I regret that it came to that. I don’t know what else could have been done except for him to be more patient.”

Yes, well, patience has ceased to be a virtue for female executives who are routinely excluded from positions of power. Instead of biding their time, women are out-finessing their bosses by calling it quits to climb the corporate ladder.

Toronto’s financial district on July 30, 2018. Women are out-finessing their bosses by calling it quits to climb the corporate ladder.Graeme Roy/The Canadian Press

LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company dubbed the trend the “Great Breakup” in their 2022 Women in the Workplace report.

“Women are demanding more from work, and they’re leaving their companies in unprecedented numbers to get it. Women leaders are switching jobs at the highest rate we’ve ever seen – and at a higher rate than men in leadership,” the report states.

“Companies are struggling to hold on to the relatively few women leaders they have. And all of these dynamics are even more pronounced for women of color.”

Is anyone really surprised that professional women have had it with companies that overlook their credentials, shortchange them on pay and undervalue their efforts to create inclusive workplaces?

Businesses that underestimate female leaders are doing so at their own peril.

“Young women are even more ambitious, and they place a higher premium on working in an equitable, supportive, and inclusive workplace,” the report said. “They’re watching senior women leave for better opportunities, and they’re prepared to do the same.”

Corporate Canada, in particular, has a real problem. Only 5.3 per cent of TSX-listed companies have a woman as their CEO, according to a 2022 Diversity Disclosure Practices report by law firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP.

Of course, that gender imbalance will persist for many more years because less than 12 per cent of TSX-listed companies have set targets for female executive officers, according to Osler’s data.

“Every year we have highlighted the lack of any meaningful progress in increasing the proportion of women executive officers among TSX companies, and in recent years we have noted the lack of representation of visible minorities, Indigenous peoples or persons with a disability among executive officers,” reads the report.

The numbers are so bad that they can’t possibly be the result of random happenstance. Rather, there has been a pervasive failure to promote women to the top jobs in corporate Canada and the men in charge still aren’t doing their part to fix the problem.

Given these grim statistics, Ms. Dottori-Attanasio is a real success story because she will become one of a small number of female CEOs in Canada.

Her decision to part ways with CIBC shocked many in the banking industry, but it should prove instructive to other women with leadership ambitions.

Ms. Dottori-Attanasio took initiative, beat the odds and landed in the C-suite.

So, if you’re a woman who is tired of playing the waiting game at work, don’t try to outlast a boss who’s holding you back. Outwit him instead.